Louder than balms: Harry Styles

Crucial to understanding the Harry Styles cult is the extent to which his shows of curiosity and its desirable byproduct empathy commingle with his horndog affectations. I use “shows” and “affectations” advisedly: to be a pop star requires, in part, what used to be called in politics “expanding your base” before 2016 changed oh so many things. But on the evidence of third album Harry’s House the One Directioner whose equine frailty and size 24 waistline marked him for solo stardom would rather rest a thoughtful chin on a fist as he listens to a female friend’s chatter than exploit these projections of warmth to get her nude under the comforter. At least that’s how he comes off to me, and if one anecdotal chat with a twelve-year-old female Styles fan offers any insight, I’m not alone. “Harry cares,” a cousin said last Friday twelve hours after Harry’s House streamed. “He wants to be your friend.” Because underestimating the shrewdness of adolescents — their acceptance of hype as a kind of coin of the realm which allows them to focus on a teen dream’s essentials — has done in parents and bizzers (who are often parents too) since Elvis, I take her at her word. Niall Horan recorded the tuffer album, Zayn has the richer ethnic story I wish he had the talent to tell, but in 2022 only Harry Styles occupies a cultural moment unique in its ephemerality, impressive in its ecumenicism, and hazardous in its toxicity. Louder than a balm, his material comforts; it imagines that men and women can talk — can listen — to each other without cruelty and lust as subtext and motivator. He’s the Netflix series Heartstopper in human form.

Opening with a putative dance number called, “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” whose horn section is strident enough to get them thrown out of Nobu, Harry’s House is strongest at its fluffiest. Producers-cowriters Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, the former a specialist in the orchestral sonorities embraced by Jessie Ware and Florence Welch, manipulate echo for intimacy’s sake, the space that Styles as singer and credited co-songwriter thinks needs bridging. Looking to ease a thwarted self-expression, singers leaving a literal or figurative band of brothers have been fêted from Michael Jackson to Nick Jonas. Styles is different. No hip-hop collaborations or wah-wah pedals here. By abjuring robofunk and lissome light-bottomed disco-inflected pop for sweet, occasionally gormless tubthumpers like the ones idol Shania Twain perfected during the dot-com era, he proffers an idea(l) of romance dependent on visual elaboration as much as on aural verities; he’s young enough to get how Instagram texts and Tik Tok videos require a concision that would make Basho say the hell with it, lest the heart break. “Daydreaming,” the only track the newly un-Synced Justin Timberlake might’ve recorded, relies on the indestructible Brothers Johnson jam “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” as skeleton and neurological support. Then it’s gone: a mood, a whim, discarded like one of the tutus and frill-mad skirts he sports for magazine shoots. “Give me something to dream about,” he pleads over the sampled wordless chanting. Dreaming offers a remove. Dreaming is free.

I have no reason to doubt the fantastically named Styles enjoys, like the rest of us, tea and toast more than he has sex. He’s just mad about victuals, actually. When he croons, “Hash browns, egg yolk, I will always love you,” I wonder whether he dangled a modifier or signaled his true sexual orientation: a foodie. The absurd #1 “Watermelon Sugar,” it’s clear, worked less as love-me-down than as proof of his commitment to silliness, to being the kind of silly that gets people to loosen up — like a cis male letting a female friend paint his fingernails or braid his hair. The new “Matilda” with its crisp finger-picked guitar addresses an eponymous woman whose family never showed her love; the key line, though, is “It’s none of my business, but it’s just been on my mind.” One of those self-revelatory banalities of which pop music fandom is made. On “Little Freak” he apes Troye Sivan to confusing PG-rated effect. Elsewhere, Styles hovers like a new moon on Monday in “Satellite,” mangles the title conceit in “Cinema” in exchange for comity, and hankers for “Late Night Talking” over rattling synths — whatever it takes to get him over to your place and bedroom carpet, showing each other cat memes.

To be a popular recording artist is to syncretize complementary and oppositional modes of self-representation. The good ones wrestle with the contradictions; the great ones squeeze them into a fist and punch the air with defiance. A rigorous, sometimes buoyant, and often despairing act of desecration, Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers goes where Harry’s House would prefer to slam the front door. Obviously. Where Harry Styles is a white singer with talent for whom leisure and the blandishments of capitalism encourage a multi-platform representation of safe queerness, Kendrick Lamar is a Black rapper of genius for whom fame and the persistence of systemic racism provoke a righteousness that by album’s end hardens into a wrathful self-reliance beyond the bromides of Eckhart Tolle. He offers no comfort. He does not want to be your friend, much less a statue in the park. To think of Styles reaching a point at which he approximates the rigors of “Count Me Out” and “Mirror” breaks the brain, and it’s got nothing to do with “earning” those rigors; Lamar hasn’t earned shit, he’ll remind an audience comprising in part the committee who awarded him a Pulitzer. He’d trade the accolades for peace. Adjusting his selves to match the audience in his head, Harry Styles Wants To Be There For You. Whether as affect or the superstar-since-he-was-a-babe’s narcissism as gesture of compassion, it’s not without its truth, and to his credit he knows the world right now is garbage: the hook in his last #1 went “You know it’s not the same as it was,” the keyboard alluding to early ’80s New Pop at its glummest. At once assured and tentative, Harry’s House is what you’d expect from a singer who courts Stevie Nicks and wants Sivan’s cred. Amalgamators are ingratiators. If there’s a cost, well, look no further than the album Harry’s House will knock off the album chart next week.

3 thoughts on “Louder than balms: Harry Styles

  1. I honestly miss the days when our music stars were larger than life and kind of unknowable. Despite them being famous for most of my life, singers like Prince and Bowie and others felt like they lived in another realm.

    I feel like I know way too much about Harry and most of the modern pop stars and there’s no mystery.

    1. Byproducts of reality shows. The most perverse upward mobility trend of the century, Barring some notable talents like M. Lambert and Clarkson I don care for any of them

      1. Styles isn’t of that ilk, though — he’s a boy band dude, a type we’ve known for 50 years

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